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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

‘Girl Gains’ empowers women in the weight room

New club promotes weightlifting for women to improve athletic performance and long-term health

By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — features@theaggie.org 

Girl Gains,” a new club at UC Davis, hopes to destigmatize and empower women in the weight room — which is good news for women’s health, because strength training has proven to be beneficial for athletic performance, injury prevention and long-term health

The club is the newest chapter of a larger organization on college campuses across the U.S. and Canada. The Girl Gains lifting club was established in 2020 at San Diego State University (SDSU), where its founders noticed a serious gender imbalance in the weight lifting areas of their campus gym. Just two years later, more than 20 chapters have been established with the goal of providing “women of all backgrounds and fitness levels with community, resources and confidence.”

Amanda Hamblin, one of the co-presidents of the Davis chapter, is a first-year political science – public service major. She was inspired to start the club after finding a TikTok from Elisabeth Bradley, one of the founding members of the original Girl Gains club.

She was saying all the benefits of having the club [and] how much it’s helped so many women, and I thought it was such a great thing,” Hamblin said. “I thought about how I really wish our school had that, and then at the end of the TikTok, she said something like, ‘If you’re interested in starting [a chapter] at your school, please fill out the form in my bio.’ The next day, she got back to me, and I told her I was interested.” 

Hamblin brought the idea to the Center for Student Involvement, which connected her to Jennifer Chavez, a second-year communication and Chicana/o studies double major, who also wanted to start a chapter of Girl Gains at Davis. 

Chavez and Hamblin began setting up the club during fall quarter, then launched a website and Instagram account at the beginning of winter quarter. The two co-presidents, along with Audrey Vargas, the vice president, and Simran Khinda, the director of marketing, posted flyers around the gym and dorms and reached out to different organizations on campus. 

Two months after their initial launch, their Instagram account had over 600 followers, and the club had received over 200 applications for membership. They have held multiple events already this quarter, including one called “Gymtimidation” that aimed to address women’s intimidation when picking up weights or not knowing where to start at the gym. The club plans to have events in the future with guest speakers and discussions of topics like “weightlifting for beginners.” 

The club’s values of knowledge, body positivity, community and strength reflect a greater movement that has increased the number of women reaching for weights rather than just the elliptical at the gym. Podcasts like Fit & Fearless and social media fitness influencers have helped make weight lifting less intimidating and more accessible for women. 

Keith Baar, a professor of molecular exercise physiology, said that sociological expectations and the stigma surrounding women lifting weights hold women back from lifting like men do. He referenced a study suggesting it is a misconception that testosterone determines muscle gain. Women, who do not produce the same levels of testosterone that men do, are still able to gain muscle mass at a similar rate to men. 

Baar said that one of the most common factors that holds women back is societal expectations of women’s bodies.

When I was a strength coach at the University of Michigan, the hardest thing that I had for some of my female athletes was that they would come in and say, ‘My boyfriend thinks I’m getting too big,’” Baar said. “The conversation I had with them was that if your boyfriend finds it difficult to be with you because you’re big and strong, then I think you are probably better off with a different boyfriend than with not being big and strong.” 

He said that he was excited to hear about the new club supporting women because it helps lessen the stigma around gaining muscle and makes the gym scene less intimidating for women, especially beginners. 

Not only does weight training empower women and build their confidence, but it also has many positive effects on short-term and long-term health. Baar explained that lifting weights can affect both physiological and mental health.

Endurance or cardiovascular exercise helps prevent harmful neurotoxins from entering the bloodstream and going to the brain, but weight lifting can also benefit people’s mindsets.

Depression tells you that no matter what you do, nothing changes, nothing gets better and everything gets worse,” Baar said. “When you contrast that with every time you go to the gym — [where] you’re actually getting better, bigger and stronger — there’s a direct contrast to the mental state that you’re in.”

In terms of physical health, strength training is most helpful for injury prevention. Danielle Steffen, a Ph.D candidate in biochemistry, molecular, cellular and developmental biology, studies the role of mechanical loading in tendon development, injury and repair. Tendons (the tissue that connects muscles to bones) and muscles are common areas for injuries. Steffen said that weightlifting helps prevent muscle and tendon injury by increasing muscle strength and balancing the stiffness between the tissues. 

“If the tendon is really stiff, it’s going to pull on a weak muscle and the muscle is going to become injured,” Steffen said. “Weightlifting is going to increase muscle strength while decreasing tendon stiffness to help prevent muscle and tendon injury.”

Activities like running and other plyometric dynamic exercises typically increase stiffness, so as an athlete, weight training is important to prevent musculoskeletal injury.

Weightlifting can also aid in tendon repair after an injury. Isometric holds are common types of exercises in which you hold a position with your muscle, contracting without moving joints. Baar has used isometric exercises in conjunction with dietary collagen supplementation to completely reverse patellar tendinopathy, which is an inflammation of the patellar tendon that limits knee function, in a professional basketball player. Both Steffen’s and Baar’s preliminary data show that isometric exercises increase specific molecular signals for tendon regeneration, which helps rehabilitate an injury.

Steffen was a pole vaulter on the UC Davis track and field team as an undergraduate, ranking in the top ten at UC Davis. She is now a self-proclaimed “competitive hobby jogger” with the cross country and track and field club at UC Davis. She runs six to seven times per week, incorporating at least one day of weight training in order to prevent injuries. 

According to other studies, strength training can also make joints stronger without intense impact on bones. This is especially helpful for older people who might have a harder time with high impact activities like running because of low bone density. Women in particular are susceptible to reduced bone density, which can result in easily fractured or broken bones with long periods of recovery. But that’s not all of the benefits, according to Baar. 

What we know is that the greatest predictor of human longevity is actually your muscle size, muscle mass and strength,” Baar said.

Barr said that individuals between the ages of 40 and 65 are twice as likely to live to 100 if they are in the top third of their age and gender groups for strength. Comparatively, individuals in the top third of their populations for endurance ability are only 10% more likely to live to 100 than the lower two-thirds of the population. Thus, while endurance training certainly improves cardiovascular health, Baar said, weight training has a better correlation with lifespan.

It’s never too late to pick up weights. Baar suggested starting with bodyweight workouts before moving on to heavy lifting.

 “Once you’ve mastered the movements with a full range of motion using just bodyweight, weight lifting is easy,” Baar said. “Just repeat those motions with heavier weights. It’s imperative to find trustworthy sources when getting information about how to lift and figuring out a lifting routine.”


Written by: Maya Shydlowski – features@theaggie.org




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